8-inch snake found dead on Haines road

Posted: Wednesday, September 07, 2005

HAINES - There aren't supposed to be snakes in Alaska, but evidence to the contrary may have been found in Haines.

An 8-inch serpent was found crushed on the side of a road, leaving residents wondering if it was wild or an escaped pet.

The snake was found on Small Tracts Road and is not an ideal specimen. Crushed by a car and found on the shoulder of the road, it's dry, discolored and missing most of its skull.

But stored in a freezer at Haines High School, it's soon to be sent to the collections department of the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a genetic sample to be tested in Texas.

Haines herpetologist Tim Shields collected the roadkill reported by pedestrian Bev Schupp on Aug. 18 and said it could be a significant find.

"It could be the first vouchered specimen of a snake in Alaska," he told the Chilkat Valley News.

Then again, it could be an escaped pet.

The pattern of lateral stripes, keeled scales and general body proportions likely makes it a garter snake, Shields said.

Haines High School students helped narrow the possibilities by examining the specimen under a magnifying scope and counting diagonal rows of scales at designated body points - a diagnostic tool that indicates the snake could be a common garter snake, Thamnopic sirtalis, Shields said.

A certain identification of the species will not be possible until genetic evidence is analyzed, however.

Rich Culver, a computer technician at Juneau's Harborview Elementary School, became the first Alaska snake enthusiast to successfully breed green tree pythons in March 2004. He doubts a subspecies of snake could survive in Southeast Alaska.

"If I was going to take a guess, that's an escapee, unfortunately," Culver said. "Unfortunately, because he's dead. I've seen frogs and toads, but I have never ever run across these reptiles. I would think it would be very difficult for them to survive in our climate, but it's definitely possible."

Ben Carney, a science teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School, keeps several varieties of garter snakes in his classroom. He thinks the snake could have escaped from a vehicle. Garter snakes are attracted to heat and often crawl into cars, trucks and RVs, he said.

"The reasons there have been no snakes documented in the state is because they can't survive over the winter," he said. "The ground is frozen. In fact, that's why there are no reptiles in the state of Alaska. Amphibians can burrow into the mud and water but reptiles can't do that. They can't breathe through their skin. There's nowhere for them to go, and Haines is certainly cold in the winter."

Snake escapes are a common problem for reptile owners.

"If they can get their heads out of a small object or opening, they're as good as gone," Culver said. "(Garter) snakes have a pungent musk they use as a deterrent. It could have squirted someone, and they could have dropped it and there it goes."

Aaron Tucker, a former snake owner and an employee at Wee Fishie Shoppe in Juneau, said the store has dealt with escaped snakes twice in the past three months.

"One of our customers dropped their cage and their snake got out and attacked one of his cats," Tucker said. "He came back in and started complaining."

The store always ensures that its snake customers know how to take care of the reptiles and have a proper cage, Tucker said. Oftentimes, a snake will attack the weak structural points of a cage and wiggle its way free, he said. Snake cages usually have special light bulbs that allow the reptiles to absorb calcium. On occasion, a bulb will melt the plastic around the cage, paving the snake's path to freedom.

Garter snakes are not unheard of in Southeast Alaska but there's never been documentation.

"It's the first time somebody's gotten a corpse," Shields said.

Garter snakes were reported along the Taku and Stikine rivers in a scientific paper published in 1976.

The locations are not far from interior British Columbia locations known to be within the species' range. The only specimen collected, however, was lost.

"All other attempts to locate this specimen or to document the presence of garter snakes anywhere in the region have been unsuccessful," according to the field guide, "Amphibians and Reptiles of Alaska," which lists the species as "potential."

Carney spent some time in Petersburg, near the Stikine, and never saw a snake or heard a friend mention spotting one.

"I would be less surprised to hear about a snake showing up on the Stikine because they wouldn't have to cross a mountain," Carney said. "They could be running down the river. Whereas in Haines, I'd be shocked."

Another reported sighting came from the Chilkat Peninsula in the 1970s, said National Park Service Trails Specialist Blaine Anderson. He e-mailed Shields the anecdote of a trail worker who reported seeing garter snakes frequently while working in Chilkat State Park.

Shields said identifying the species affirmatively still will not answer whether the animal was wild, an escapee or the offspring of an escapee.

If the animal is occurring naturally in the Chilkat Valley, it should not cause alarm, Shields said.

"Garter snakes are totally harmless and eat garden slugs. It would be a welcome addition to the biota in Haines."

• Empire reporter Korry Keeker contributed to this report.



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